A first edition copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, one of the most influential books in the world, is going to be held for auction in New York with an opening price of at least  US$1m (£790,000) this month.


Principia Mathematica with Sir Isaac Newton’s notes.
Image credits Cambridge University Library.

Back in 2003, a red morocco leather-bound copy of the book said to have belonged to King James II sold at auction of more than US$2.5m; it’s list price was US$600,000. Now, New York auction house Christie’s is holding one of the first edition copies up for auction with a list price of between US$1-1.5m — which could easily become one of the most expensive copies of the text ever sold.

But what makes it so valuable? Well, the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) is, hands down, one of the most important and influential books in modern science. It laid out the brunt of Newton’s theories on gravity and motion, while also being the first work of scope to apply a more rigorous mathematical system to physics. It became the benchmark for scientific method and thought. Just to put it into perspective, this book, published in 1687, was the physics treatise to read all up to the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1916. It was a fundamental text, setting the tone of physical research for almost 230 years.

“What Newton does in the 1680s is revolutionise the physical sciences. The fundamental laws of physics,” said Keith Moore, head of the Royal Society library.

It’s also one of the rarest printed versions of the book. Out of the roughly 400 first edition copies printed of the Principia, about 20% were “continental” copies designed for buyers in Europe, which had several minor differences from those sold in England at the time — and this copy is one of them.

Moore believes that the large guide price comes down to a growing appreciation of science in culture, as well as the huge fortunes amassed by luckier tech entrepreneurs.

“People who have big books these days maybe are the kinds of people who have made their money on the internet,” he said. “If you’ve made your money from a really cool algorithm, you will probably appreciate Newtonian physics. If you have a few million quid to spend, why wouldn’t you buy a copy of Principia Mathematica?”

“It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published,” Keith added. “It was hugely influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.”

The society retains two copies of the book, including its “greatest treasure” — the original manuscript used to run the first print edition in 1687.